Natural Foods Merchandiser

If only the economy could stay high as salt levels

Food manufacturers' lack of changes in sodium content in processed foods has been like rubbing salt in the wound of public health, according to new information published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. According to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, although the industry has acknowledged that levels are too high, the average sodium content of 528 packaged and restaurant foods stayed essentially the same between 2005 and 2008.

Research has linked excess sodium to an increased risk of high blood pressure (and subsequent heart attack and kidney disease), stroke, asthma, kidney stones, osteoporosis and stomach cancer. According to the American Medical Association, slicing the nation's sodium intake in half could save 150,000 lives each year. U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that healthy adults consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium a day, about one teaspoonful. People with hypertension, people middle-aged and older and African-Americans should consume no more than 1,500 mg.

"The food industry is knowingly overusing a chemical that can cause crippling disease or early death," CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson said in a release. "Despite 30 years of unkept promises from food companies, nothing has changed. The average sodium content remains dangerously high. The next administration can't sit by incuriously as chain restaurants and food manufacturers recklessly turn Americans' brains and hearts into ticking time bombs."

Salt may be lurking in innocent-seeming places. The January issue of Consumer Reports features results from an analysis of 37 supermarket staples, many of which were found to contain large amounts of sodium despite not having salty flavors. For example, a cup of Kellogg's Raisin Bran contains 350 mg, a half-cup of Friendship 1 percent low-fat cottage cheese has 360 mg. The article warns that lower-fat foods can be higher in sodium than their full-fat counterparts.

On its website, the Alexandria, Va.-based Salt Institute, a nonprofit industry trade organization calls the CSPI information, and similar information put forth by Britain's Food Standards Agency, "a dangerous charade," and questions the accuracy of the research. The website also calls attention to a British survey which found that after an expensive government PR campaign "demonizing salt… consumer concerns over salt dropped dramatically."

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